What Happened to Horror?
Horror used to fill a unique space in the film landscape. Lauren Bennett takes a look at the genre and asks: has horror lost its way?
It’s common knowledge nowadays that horror movies have earned themselves a bit of a reputation for being – for lack of a better word – terrible. But a lot of the issues people have with the modern horror movies we see churned out year after year aren’t exclusive to the horror genre. “Too many remakes, reboots and sequels” and “predictable plots and reusing the same old tricks” are common complaints people have after seeing any big-budget release. With Hollywood perpetually terrified of taking risks, the current state of horror movies is just a symptom of a more widespread disease.
Horror movies can be so cheap to make and are almost guaranteed to make a profit; Saw (Dir. James Wan, 2004) cost $1.5 million to make and profited $102.8 million and with its success came an explosion of movies in the ‘torture porn genre’. Then there was Paranormal Activity (Dir. Oren Peli, 2007) which was made for $15,000 and grossed $193 million worldwide, and more recently The Conjuring (Dir. James Wan, 2013) which cost $20 million to make but took in $318 million at the box office. When a horror movie strikes on such a winning formula, Hollywood can’t help but milk it for all its worth and in doing so it robs these movies of made them scary to begin with; the element of surprise. What may have been spine-chillingly frightening on first viewing won’t pack the same punch once you’ve seen it 100 times. The overuse of the horror tropes has led the majority of modern horror movies themselves becoming more and more like jump-scares – a shallow momentary thrill that scares you for a second, which is forgotten immediately once it is over.
The constant need to up the ante has led to films that border on the absurd with how grotesque they are – The Human Centipede Trilogy (Dir. Tom Six) is a good example – instead of being scary they end up being a grossness endurance test. The overexposure to violence and gore means audiences quickly become desensitised and are left feeling bored to death.
When a horror movie strikes on such a winning formula, Hollywood can’t help but milk it for all its worth and in doing so it robs these movies of made them scary to begin with; the element of surprise.
So, that begs the question; what makes a horror movie great? Much like comedy, horror is incredibly subjective since not everyone finds the same things funny or scary. Making a truly brilliant horror movie is almost alchemical, but there are certain elements we see time and time again in the classics of the genre. A focus on the atmosphere is often key to making a movie a genuine fright-fest. Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) which master the art of creating tension and suspense and focus on the psychological elements do a much better job of getting under the audience’s skin. A more recent example, The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) is another movie which brilliantly crafts a tense atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread that leaves you on edge throughout the whole movie.
On the more surreal end of the spectrum you have directors like David Lynch who in movies like Eraserhead (1977) creates such a disturbing and eerie tone through his use of unsettling industrial imagery and dream-like (or rather ‘nightmare-like’) logic, that the experience of the movie haunts you long after it has ended.
When we as the audience are presented with an ensemble cast of two dimensional characters, all we can see is a bunch of potential victims waiting to be disposed of in a series of hackneyed death scenes.
Another aspect that sets great horror movies apart is characters you really care about. If you aren’t invested in the people you’re watching there’s no tension when you see them fight for survival. When we as the audience are presented with an ensemble cast of two dimensional characters, all we can see is a bunch of potential victims waiting to be disposed of in a series of hackneyed death scenes. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1968) or Alien (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) work so well because of their strong central performances and well fleshed out characters. Alien also benefits from having some amazing practical effects, as do films like The Thing (Dir. John Carpenter, 1982) and David Cronenburg’s classics like Videodrome (1983) or The Fly (1986).
All these movies also benefit from not giving the audience too much exposition and retaining a sense of mystery. In my experience, the horror movies which really leave an impression are the ones that stimulate the darkest parts of the imagination, their scares rely on what they don’t show just as much as what they do.
With audiences being so genre savvy, newer horror movies need to do a bit more heavy lifting to keep us engaged. The recent horror movies that really grab our attention are the ones that push the boundaries of the genre in unexpected ways. Get Out (Dir.Jordan Peele, 2017) is an excellent example of a modern horror movie that feels so fresh because of how it blends horror and dark comedy to create a razor-sharp social satire, or Raw (Dir. Julia Ducournau, 2017) which explores coming-of-age anxieties and adolescent sexuality through horror and gore.
(Image courtesy of Metacritic)